How Banfi’s vineyards are adapting to climate change

A pre-lockdown visit to Tuscany revealed how a mind-boggling attention to detail in the vineyard could help one of Italy’s best-known wine producers to cope with global warming, writes Peter Ranscombe.

FOR Gianni Savelli, climate change isn’t a hypothetical subject that’s confined to the evening news bulletin or a discussion about the far-flung future that’s featured in a broadsheet newspaper – it’s already a fact of life.

As he led the way along the rows of vines at Montalcino in Tuscany, the man in charge of growing grapes in Banfi’s vineyards explained how the Italian wine producer is already adapting its farming to cope with the changing climate.

“Global warming will give us more and more problems to face in the future – we know this already,” he warned.

Yet the wine producer’s history of innovation means it’s well-placed to meet those challenges.

Banfi began as an experiment; in 1978, Italian-American brothers John and Harry Mariani – who had built their business importing Lambrusco wines into the United States – recruited winemaker Ezio Rivella to find them land where they could start from scratch.

“In the wine world, investors normally buy existing wineries, but Banfi was a pioneering experiment because the Marianis were buying land to plant themselves,” Savelli explained.

Rivella believed in the potential of the region, which already had a reputation for producing small quantities of a high-quality red wine, known as Brunello di Montalcino.

Banfi is now the largest Brunello producer – and also makes wines in other parts of Italy – but has retained that pioneering spirit from its earliest days in order to tackle the effects of global warming.

Savelli is experimenting with grape varieties from Georgia, which may grow well in Tuscany as its climate changes.

He said the area’s merlots had dropped in quality from their peak in the 1980s due to global warming and pointed to a 1.5-degree increase in average temperature across the Mediterranean over the past 25 years

Heatwaves are a particular threat, with rainfall dropping in some years from an already relatively-low average of 600mm to less than 200mm, and temperatures sitting above 35C for more than 45 days, placing the vines under stress.

As a result, each vine produces smaller grapes with less juice; in 2017, production dropped by 18%.

Yet one characteristics of climate change is variability; in 2017, the area received 400mm of rain, but in 2018 that figure soared to 1,200mm.

Clones and trellises

Other experiments taking place in the vineyards are looking at disease-resistant grape varieties – including modern hybrids, reminiscent of work being undertaken in Bordeaux – and at rootstocks.

That research builds on previous work that’s taken place at Banfi.

Back in the mid-1980s, the company teamed up with the University of Milan to identify which clones of the sangiovese grape used to make Brunello were growing best in which parts of its vineyards.

They identified 11 examples from 400 known clones and picked three clones to propagate, which – when combined – gave the typicity, the structure and the colour needed to deliver the best quality.

That work is now paying further dividends.

“Thanks to these three clones, we will have less difficulty in facing the problems caused by global warming,” said Savelli.

“If you have only one clone in your vineyard then all your grapes will react in the same way, but if you have two or three then they can help each other and fill-in the gaps if one loses some of its characteristics.”

Banfi will share its rootstock and clonal research with other producers, while Savelli said he was flattered that his neighbours had begun to copy the trellises he and his team had developed on their site.

Introduced in 2001, their “albarello-Banfi” trellis produces four bunches of grapes from each vine, compared with Montalcino’s more common spur cordon system, which yields six or eight bunches.

Albarello is designed to help get high-quality grapes from poorer-quality soils.

The system also allows easy expose for the grapes to the sun for ripening and to the wind to fend off diseases.

A very specific density

Savelli has also increased the number of vines packed into each hectare of the vineyard; raising the density of the vines means each plant produces fewer grapes, but with each berry having more concentrated flavours.

Roughly, each vine produces 1.2 kilograms of grapes – enough to make a single bottle of Brunello.

Banfi was also the first winery in the region to study its soils and split them into zones, allowing it to plant each variety in the most suitable soil and to select the most suitable trellis to support each plant.

The best soils for its sangiovese are the poorer soils, which produce smaller berries.

Smaller grapes have a greater skin-to-pulp ratio, meaning there are more of the compounds that are needed to give red wine its structure.

Taken together, all the data allows Savelli to use different trellising for different patches of soil within individual vineyards.

Analysing the quality of the grapes produced spot by spot is a mind-boggling attention to detail, which means that, while Banfi has 40 Brunello vineyards, it has identified up to 20 plots within each.

In effect, these are farms within farms, akin to having 50 or 60 regular-sized sites within one larger property.

From the vineyard to the cellar

That focus on precision continues into the winery – or the wineries within a winery – with grapes from each plot turned into separate wines so their quality can continue to be assessed before the best are selected for the final blending.

But that’s perhaps where the story abruptly stops; although Banfi vinifies those plots separately, it only produces four Brunellos.

Having tasted some of the individual samples in the cellar, I would love to see some of them bottled separately too, even if they’re just as limited-edition runs.

In the meantime, I’ll just have to console myself with wines like the 2015 Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino (£33.95, KWM Wines & Spirits), with a complex nose full of redcurrant, blackcurrant, wood smoke, milk chocolate, biscuit and a floral note.

On the palate, it was the blackcurrant that came to the fore when tasting it in Banfi’s cellar and, when I sampled it again more recently, it was joined by more raspberry and red plum flavours.

It’s a wine that needs food at the moment to really get the balance right with its tannins, but it shows so much potential.

Stepping up a gear, the 2015 Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura (equivalent to £55, Millesima) – made from grapes harvested in the 36 hectares of special vineyards growing around Banfi’s castle – has more concentrated blackcurrant and blackberry flavours than Banfi’s standard Brunello, with more wood smoke aromas on the nose, thanks to the fraction of the wine aged in smaller barriques rising to 60% from 25% in the standard wine.

It was the long, long finish that got me though; a real treat.

A wee while longer to wait

Banfi’s other two Brunellos from the 2015 vintage are even more special, although we’ll have to wait until next year for them to go on sale because the winery ages its top wines in its cellar for longer before they’re released.

The 2015 Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Riserva is made using grapes from the four or five best vineyards within the 36 hectares surrounding the castle and, when I tasted it in the cellar back in February, it had a warmer nose than the non-riserva version, with more black cherry and black plum, and sweeter chocolate flavours.

At the top of the winery’s pyramid sits the 2015 Castello Banfi Poggio all’Oro Riserva, a “cru” or single vineyard wine, with wet fur and cedar on the nose and then lots of spicy cloves, cinnamon and black pepper on the palate.

It’s got a long way to go, but I can’t wait to see how the single vineyard version will stack up, and – maybe one day – tasting it alongside other individual plots, if they make it all the way through to being bottled individually.

Read more of Peter Ranscombe’s wine, beer and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.